Museum of Computing launches video series

Museum of Computing launches video series

The National Museum of Computing have a working PDP8 - and aren't afraid to use it. To play chess.

The National Museum of Computing has officially launched the first in a series of videos introducing a small selection of their hardware via perennial video-sharing favourite YouTube.

The Museum, which is based at Bletchley Park – home of the team of codebreakers responsible for the creation of the Colossus system for breaking German Enigma ciphers during World War 2, and the spiritual birthplace of modern computing – has been slowly preparing itself for flinging its doors open to the public, and this selection of videos created by its staff is a key step toward its official opening. Currently, visitors to the codebreaking museum at Bletchley Park are allowed limited access to certain exhibits as a bonus on their entry fee.

The short videos, available on the Museum's official YouTube channel cover the ins and outs of entering programs into a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP8 minicomputer system ready for a rousing game of chess. Younger bit-tech readers will be bemused by the lack of monitor, curious at the presence of a strip of tape seeming to hold the chess program, and completely flummoxed by the fact that the chap presenting appears to be typing into a printer; if you're of a 'certain age', however, it'll all bring back some nostalgic memories of a different era.

The Museum is also working on a second series, due for uploading some time this week, which will cover the Elliot 803. These videos are made possible by the Museum's staff being able to restore machines to full working order: not content with creating a building filled with relics gathering dust, the team aim to have every single exhibit within the Museum fully-functional and completely interactive.

It's good to see the team at the Museum producing these videos and allowing a generation of computer enthusiasts who can't imagine a life without a mouse and a 24-bit colour display to see what life was like back at the bleeding edge of the computing industry, and I personally look forward to the day when the doors are opened as a museum in its own right rather than as an annexe to Bletchley Park – and I'll be there, ticket in hand, ready to beat all comers at a game of SpaceWar.

Do we have any bit-tech readers who remember the days of punch-tape – or even punch cards? Did any of you build an Altair from kit form – and have it work? Share your experiences of the early days of computing over in the forums.


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Mentai 16th June 2008, 11:28 Quote
This looks like a great idea. My dad has told me about punchcards being introduced when he was in university, kinda hard to visualise these days. I'd want to go have a play around for sure.
mikeuk2004 16th June 2008, 12:33 Quote
Wow, how things have changed and how people of today expect and demand computers to do so much more.
Gareth Halfacree 16th June 2008, 16:37 Quote
Originally Posted by Tile
Youtube - yuck !! Why don't they host the videos on a dedicated server.
Probably because most of their dedicated servers have around 32KB of core memory. :p

The Museum is run entirely on donations, so I would imagine they chose YouTube simply because they don't have the budget to host large video files.
Bionic-Blob 16th June 2008, 18:33 Quote
cool, i live in bletchley :P
dgrb 9th March 2009, 02:59 Quote
"Bletchley Park – home of the team of codebreakers responsible for the creation of the Colossus system for breaking German Enigma ciphers during World War 2".

Oh dear, oh dear. Colossus was *not* designed to crack Enigma. The Turing-Welchman Bombe was built for that and it was electromechanical.

Colossus was built to decipher messages encoded using "Fish" (the British name for the Siemens Geheimschreiber 42) and was purely electronic. It was derived from several machines (the "Robinsons") designed by Max Newman - Turing's supervisor at Cambridge, he later went on to Manchester ; Colossus itself was designed by Tom(my) Flowers and built by him, Sid Broadhurst and W.W. Chandler.

Although Turing had no direct input into the design of Colossus (this is another widely-promulgated myth - but he was in Washington. DC, when it was designed and built) he was an inspiration for it, Newman, of course, being intimately familiar with Turing's groundbreaking paper "On Computable Numbers".

BTW the first computer ever to play - to be precise, beep - music was the Australian-built CSIRAC, which in 1951 beeped Colonel Bogey.

The page also suggests adding some personal memories from any who might recall "punch tapes, even punch cards"

Well, for one thing, punch cards lasted rather longer than paper tape - both literally and in use. I can recall dealing with one site c1984 who still used paper tape and were considered seriously loony for doing so. Punched cards were still around at the same time, although seriously obsolescent, but not viewed as being as anachronistic as tape.

The first computer I ever wrote code for was the IBM 7090 owned by Imperial College, London.

I was still in school and we were one of three participating in a pilot project with the college. I can still recall our day visit to Imperial where we were addressed by some senior honcho from IBM and saw the machine.

Our programs were written in FORTRAN, which was compiled used PUFFT, the Purdue University Fast Fortran Compiler, FORTRAN-IV was either not available or not for the 7090.

Of course our school had no card punch, so instead we had cards where every potential hole was perforated (talk about hanging chads!) and we had to punch out the appropriate ones using a device rather like a darning needle.

(On a couple of occasions our maths teacher, who had contacts in a factory with computer access a few miles away, had them punched for us).

Our cards were then mailed (of course snail) to Imperial, who would compile them and, if there were no errors, run them, print off the results and mail them back to us.

Turnaround time, with luck, a week! Imagine how I felt when my first attempt failed to compile, not because of errors in my coding, but because I'd punched ONE HOLE in the wrong place!

Irrational though it may be, I've hated FORTRAN ever since.

At university I encountered time sharing for the first time when I took a course in numerical analysis taught by Maurice Wilkes, builder of the world's first non-prototype computer, the EDSAC, and inventor of microcode.

He was an appalling lecturer - but then, on reflexion, this course was probably several light-years beneath him and he must have been seriously bored. We wrote code in BASIC for a DEC PDP-8. My supervisor also showed me the old Cambridge-built TITAN machine which was still being used.

And another tutor, the great John Conway (perhaps the only bona-fide genius I've ever met), told me all about the Game of Life a year or so before Martin Gardner's description of it in Scientific American. "I always fell a bit guilty", Conway told me, "about turning the machine off. I feel I'm *killing* them."

My first job in the industry involved programming a Honeywell 6060 in COBOL. Although we had some terminals - in a separate room, you had to book time on them - much of our work involved cards and reading listings, whether source code or (octal) memory dumps. Turnaround time, as the machine was in another building, about half a day.

And yet 35 years later, with five computers in the house plus a router and NAS box both also running linux, not to mention two at work, I feel more distanced from the *feel* of the machine than I ever did then.
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